MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage 2017: Day One (18 April) – Orbost to Sardine Creek on the Old Bonang Highway

For all posts on the MacKillop-Woods Way Pilgrimage and an explanation of the undertaking, click here.

The two sections of today’s pilgrimage along the Old Bonang Highway 1) from Orbost to Cooney Ridge Road, 2) from Cooney Ridge Road to Sardine Creek.

Day distance: 31.24km.

I feel a great deal of satisfaction today at the completion of our first day on the pilgrimage. As usual, we spent a great deal of time pouring over maps to organise our way forward. We are creating “The MacKillop-Woods Way” as we go along. To actually walk on a trail that you have planned from maps and Google Earth is a great sense of achievement.

To get from Orbost to Bombala – where we intend to end up on Saturday evening – we need to take the road north of Orbost to Bendoc. That’s a three day walk in itself, and at the end of the first day there is…nothing. Well, not quite nothing. There are a few houses at Sardine Creek designed for the earnest hermit. In fact, one is for sale. Nicely located only 37kms from Orbost along Australia’s longest section of continuously winding road on the Bonang Highway, there is a shack which can be yours for $200K+ (yes, we rang the real estate angeht). See the photos link below for more views.

In any case, it was immediately clear that we would have to return to Orbost for our second night, and this was reason number one why we needed a backup driver. Thank you God for Paul.

In addition, the prospect of walking along a main highway for a whole day – even if only 4-6 cars a day actually used it – didn’t really appeal to Seán and me, so we were very glad to find that there was an alternative, at least for the first day. The OLD Bonang Highway runs roughly parallel and just a few hundred metres west of the current Bonang Highway through the State Forest. It is less curvey and more up and down hill but also a more direct route than the main highway and turned out to be a rather good road/track which would be passable to anything with four wheel drive.

Seán and I left the Orbost Presbytery this morning at 7:30am, and walked out of town taking a pleasant side detour on Martins Road and Murphy’s Lane. After 5kms, we came to the entry to The Old Bonang Highway (hereafter OBH) where it deviates from the (new) Bonang Highway (hereafter NBH). In total the OBH runs about 32kms before reconnecting with the NBH, and that distance is almost exactly equivalent to both one day’s walking AND half way from Orbost to Goongerah, which is the next little settlement on the NBH north of Orbost (where we have been lucky enough to find an AirB&B advertised accomodation for tomorrow night called “The Tin Chalet” – more about that when we get there). Thus we had determined that this would be an ideal route to get us off the main road for a day. It was, in fact, also about 5kms shorter than walking to the same point on the main highway.

Whereas the NBH is quite windy and remains at a relatively low elevation of a couple of hundred metres, the OBH follows a straighter and more direct route. It is a track which climbs from about 25m to just over 400m elevation over 17.5kms reaching the high point (and half-way point) at Cooney Ridge Road (which itself leads west of the NBH crossing the OBH and going on past Mount Buck). It then leads back downwards for another 14kms or so until it reconnects with the NBH. The forest on the side of the OBH is quite dense, although the vegetation changes quite remarkably with the altitude. Whereas it was quite dry on the lower slopes, on the higher slopes where we found running fresh water creeks, there were fern trees and lush bush. The views from the mountain road were quite magnificent as we worked our way higher – at one point we were able to look south and see the sea in the distance.

As we were walking in the morning, Paul had driven his car up to Cooney Ridge Road and spent the morning riding on the NBH both north and south of our rendezvous point. But he was waiting for us as we arrived almost on the dot of 11:30am as planned for lunch at the intersection of the OBH and Cooney Ridge Road. He drove us up to the top of Mount Buck about 1km away (and a further 100m higher reaching to 500m elevation) where there was a fire lookout in the middle of a clearing. One of the maps we consulted had marked in picnic tables and toilets at this point, but of course there were no such thing. You can’t see much in the way of a view to the south from the top of this hill – although you do get a goodish view of the mountains to the north. There is no shade up there in the clearing, so we ate our lunch sitting in the car before heading back down to the OBH intersection.

Paul parked on the side of the road so we could sort our gear, but before very long we heard the sound of a truck coming up the road. It soon appeared around the corner, a big rig travelling as fast as it possibly could up the road and trailing an immense cloud of dust behind it. It gave no sign of slowing down, and Paul realised that it could not comfortably pass the car, so he jumped in and pulled over another couple of feet. The truck roared past and covered us all in dust without slowing downing one bit. I reflected afterward how close we had come to disaster – had we met that truck when we were coming back down the road from the top of Mount Buck, we would have run straight into it. So a warning to future pilgrims: keep your ears open for approaching vehicles AND get out of the way. The locals are dangerous.

Thankfully, the OBH was completely devoid of such risks. The slopes up and down were many but relatively gentle in their incline, making today a great exercise for the rest of this section of the pilgrimage. At times we were walking along the ridges between the mountains and able to look down on the world on both sides of the track. In the far distance we saw what at first we thought was a storm cloud but then realised was smoke from a burning off. The weather was sunny but very still, so we guessed that it was a prime day for this kind of activity. Still, we didn’t want to run into any of it.

Amazingly, we had internet and phone contact until about four kilometres north of Cooney Ridge Road. This made it possible for me to receive a phone call just after lunch from a journalist from the Eden newspaper, saying she had heard from our hosts in the Catholic parish there about our pilgrimage and asking for a photo and an interview. A photo was easily forthcoming, but as we were just setting off for the afternoon section of the track, I asked her to ring back later. Of course, later we were out of phone range, and I suspect she had left the office by the time we we had a connection again. (Interestingly, there was no phone coverage down on the NBH until we were just about back into Orbost this evening).

The other benefit of phone contact while we were up on the OBH is that Josh (aka Pilgrim #3) was able to vicariously join us for much of the pilgrimage via texting. (At one point he asked “Are you still in open country or have you entered Mirkwood?” – thus we have dubbed the forest north of Orbost by this name in memory of the Fellowship of the Ring). This vicarious participation reached its climax later in the evening when Seán shared with us his bottle of Chimay, a Belgian Trappist beer. I took a photo and texted it to Josh, who immediately went off and found his own bottle of Chimay in his cellar and drank it at the same time as us. Separated by both many miles of mountains and seas, we had a small moment of communion…

Most of the Northern end of the OBH from Cooney Ridge Road was downhill thankfully. It arrived onto the NBH at Sardine Creek about 37km along the highway north of Orbost, where, as I have said, there is an old shack for sale. It is very nicely situated with Sardine Creek itself – a beautiful and strongly flowing waterway – on the other side of the road. I took of my sandals and socks and waded into the ice cold water – what a relief!

Paul was there waiting for us and took us back home to Orbost Presbytery for the night. He then proceeded to feed us with the best chicken soup I have ever tasted (sorry Grandma) and a chicken and stir fried vege main course. We are greatly enjoying one another’s company, and I am glad to have this opportunity to get to know him. Fr Anthony Philip, the parish priest of Lakes Entrance and Orbost, texted us to wish us all the best for our journey. Coincidentally we had only just been toasting his health with Seán’s Trappist beer. We also rang Jill, the proprietor of The Tin Chalet in Goongerah to make arrangements for arriving tomorrow.

In preparation for tomorrow, we have semi-packed our gear so that we can leave early in the morning and head back to Sardine Creek. Paul will drop us and go on to Goongerah to meet Jill and set up camp for us at the Tin Chalet so that when we arrive in Goongerah all will be made ready. Unfortunately this time there really is no alternative but to walk on the NBH itself.

All photos for today’s journey can be found in my Google Photos by clicking this link!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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